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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010 08:19 pm

Open up Illinois politics to let the sunshine in

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A Virginia-based group that wanted to play in Illinois politics, but didn’t want to disclose its donors has lost Round One in what could be an extended court battle.

The Center for Individual Freedom filed a federal lawsuit earlier this summer claiming that the state’s contribution disclosure laws for non-profits and political committees should be tossed out. 

The CFIF claimed in its request for an injunction against the state disclosure laws that it wants to “speak about judicial matters, legal reform and other justice-related public policy issues in Illinois” before the general election. It’s suspected that the group planned to join the campaign against Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, who is up for retention this year. State tort reform organizations are pushing a so-far underfunded campaign against Kilbride.

State law requires campaign committees that raise more than token amounts to disclose who contributes to them. The CFIF has historically refused to say who funds its operation. The group was identified in the 1990s as working with tobacco companies in legal fights. 

But U.S. District Court Judge William T. Hart rejected the group’s motion for an injunction on the Illinois statutes, claiming that the state has a right to require financial disclosure and that state law is not unconstitutionally vague. 

Thank goodness for Judge Hart. The last time we had a big Supreme Court race in this state, millions of out-of-state dollars flowed in and it was tough to track much of it. We have a right to know who’s behind these campaigns.

Meanwhile, a handful of nonprofit groups are benefitting from a little-known state reporting loophole to fly almost completely under the media’s radar. 

State law since 2004 has allowed nonprofit organizations to file their own special disclosure reports. The Illinois State Board of Elections does not put those disclosure reports online. As a result, seven nonprofit organizations have over a million dollars available to spend in the coming campaign without anyone knowing much about them.

The newest group to take advantage of the disclosure loophole is Two Party System, Inc., which is one of the House and Senate Republicans’ larger campaign contributors. The group is run by the wife of Republican Cook County Board President nominee Roger Keats, and is funded by some of the bigger names in Chicago, including Pat Ryan, who headed up Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Olympics committee, and Duchossois Industries CEO Craig Duchossois.

None of those $500,000 or so in contributions from a total of six Chicago-area business titans can be accessed on the State Board of Elections’ website. The board claims it would’ve had to revamp its entire website code to post the contributions. The nonprofit designation expires at the end of this year, however, so the disclosure loophole will soon vanish.

So far, Two Party System, Inc. has spent about $43,000 on “polling with analysis and recommendations” for both the House and Senate Republican campaign committees. It has also set up several Republican campaigns with state of the art election software and training and provided high-tech phone-banking services. 

All told, it spent or contributed over $300,000 in May and June. Republican legislative candidates received anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars worth of services. 

The group isn’t alone. The Realtors PAC of Illinois reported no contributions during the first six months of this year, but the Illinois Association of Realtors’ nonprofit committee reported raising almost $245,000, and had the same amount available to spend on the fall campaign. 

The Illinois Coalition for Jobs, Growth and Prosperity’s official PAC, which is run by Bill Brady’s campaign chairman Ron Gidwitz and Illinois Manufacturers Association President Greg Baise, spent over $100,000 during the 2008 fall campaign. The PAC reported raising no money this year, but the group’s nonprofit arm raised and spent $25,000 during the first six months of the year. 

The Southern Central Laborers Political League has no official PAC, but its nonprofit committee had over $450,000 in the bank as of June 30. The Conservation Foundation, which is based in Naperville, had more than $160K in the bank. 

The only way to get at those reports is to request printed copies from the State Board of Elections. That’s just ridiculous. Thankfully, this board-created loophole will be closing soon. 

Sunshine isn’t the only political disinfectant, but it’s a good one. The more the better. 

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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